Car owners find this feature in modern cars the most frustrating

Hollis JohnsonWe test many infotainment systems at Business Insider.
  • Infotainment systems in cars were again cited as a problem category in the 2018 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.
  • Infotainment systems continue to be the biggest negative in the first 90 days of ownership.
  • Infotainment is here to stay, so automakers will have to get used to making improvements.

Everybody seems to want more infotainment feature in new cars – but those features don’t always live up to expectations. In fact, as they have become more prevalent and complex, they have also become a bigger hassle.

When I learned to drive, my car had an AM/FM radio – and I was lucky to have FM. That’s how basic entertainment “technology” was in vehicles in the 1980s.

Now, car owners enjoy so many options in new infotainment systems that they might not even be aware that old-fangled terrestrial radio is even in there (it is).

Automakers have responded to consumers’ tech obsession with a constantly-expanding set of features. At Business Insider, we’re fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your perspective) in that we get to sample nearly every single infotainment system on the market. We also name an Infotainment System of the Year as part of our Car of the Year program. Audi has won two years in a row.

None of this means that infotainment systems are necessarily helping car companies with their reputations; in some cases, the tech could be hurting them.

J.D. Power is out with its 2018 Initial Quality Study (IQS), a decades-old annual analysis of problems that owners experience with new vehicles. For years, the story with the IQS was how much better Japanese automakers typically performed over their US rivals, raising the question of whether Detroit could catch up.

Detroit has caught up on the mechanical front, and a big theme from the 2018 study is how much South Korean brands have improved, outpacing Japan, the US, and Germany.

Infotainment tech continues to make trouble

2017 Infotainment System of the YearBI GraphicsFor two years running, Audi has taken home or Infotainment System of the Year award.

Infotainment – including GPS navigation, Bluetooth integration, USB connectivity, voice recognition, and user interfaces – is an ongoing issue for car owners, however. J.D. Power noted 22 problems per 100 vehicles reported in the first 90 days of ownership. That was a modest improvement from the 2017 study, but still much worse than other categories, such as interior, engine, and exterior.

We review so many infotainment systems that we tend to get used to their quirks and sometimes gloss over things that might be frustrating to less-experienced users. For the most part, I’ve found almost all systems to be about the same as far as features. How those features are managed tends to make the difference.

Despite having a reputation for vehicle quality, Japanese brands lag their US competition on this front and struggle to compete with the Germans, who tend to favour overly complicated interfaces. My colleague Ben Zhang and I frequently compare notes on, say, a Lexus vehicle, savouring its marvellous quality while scratching our heads over the brand’s iffy infotainment.

Even the best systems have issues

Telsa Model S interior screen infotainmentTesla MotorsTesla’s features a massive central touchscreen.

This isn’t to say that even the best infotainment systems are all that great. I recently renewed my relationship with a Tesla Model X and Tesla’s massive central touchscreen, which controls almost all vehicle functions. After ten minutes, I was as usual grumbling at the screen and wishing I had some simple buttons or knobs to adjust the climate control.

The only standout system in my book is General Motors’ – a touchscreen-based interface that used a small group of buttons for backup. Audi’s MMI-Virtual Cockpit is stunning, but it entails a learning curve to access its high-tech glories.

On a drive last weekend, while testing Acura’s revamped infotainment system, I found my mind wandering back to my old car-radio-and-that-was-it days. True, I had to keep paper maps handy. True, the radio stations available in a given area could be quite limited. True, my car wasn’t as reliable and I lacked a connection to emergency services if I got into an accident. But the tech, such as it was, worked. There wasn’t much to complain about.

The genie is out of the bottle on infotainment, so the only way I’m going to roll back progress is to buy an ancient Chevy. But you know what? I’ll bet the radio works just fine.

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